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Entries from July 2023

The Challenge to be “Loving Neighbors” Online

As someone who dips an occasional toe into the roiling waters of what is commonly called Catholic Twitter, I was deeply grateful for the Vatican’s release of Towards Full Presence: A Pastoral Reflection on Engagement with Social Media. My only question is this: Is anyone out there listening?

The document, released by the dicastery for communication in late May, notes that the “pressing issue” remains of how both individuals and the ecclesial community “are to live in the digital world as ‘loving neighbors’ who are genuinely present and attentive to each other on our common journey along the digital highways.’”

“Pressing issue” is, perhaps, an understatement. Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes looking at what Catholics are talking about on social media these days will know that the discussion, if it can be called that, can sometimes make the most toxic parish council meeting look like a kindergarten bun fight.

The ugliness of current political discourse has seeped into religious debate, both in tone and in a pointed focus on topics such as migrants and refugees, vaccines and LGTBQ+ rights. Perhaps many of us have become more aware of the problem given the widespread coverage of Bishop Strickland’s “here I stand” moment this past May, declaring on Twitter that he rejects Pope Francis’s “program of undermining the faith.”

But the issue is much more than a few high-profile clerics dancing with dissent. Any Catholic with an internet connection can find really stunning assertions about the state of the church today. While what you see can shift based on everything from which accounts you follow to seemingly random algorithms, this week alone I’ve seen Pope Francis described as “a snake,” a “sodophile,” and as someone who “appoints enemies of the true Christ.” (If you haven’t figured it out already, social media is a hotbed of Francis haters.) People on all sides frequently lob labels like “heretic,” “bigot” and “apostate”—and those are the names fit to print!

A couple of thoughts come to mind whenever I see these online battles. First, would the combatants speak to each other this way if they bumped into each other on the steps of the church after Mass? Would they dare speak to each other in a similar fashion if they were face to face? And second, have the debaters stopped to think about the impact of their words on others, including the gullible and the searchers with few supports? The internet is a wonderful way to connect with the world but learning to discern can be challenging. When we begin from a position of arrogant certainty, we help no one.

The anonymity of the internet allows everyone from armchair quarterbacks to schoolyard bullies to weigh in, often with little information or education to back up assertions. In no way does this further the pope’s discussions on the differences between evangelizing and proselytizing. 

Evangelization "does not begin by seeking to convince others, but by bearing witness each day to the love that has watched over us and lifted us back up,” the pope says. Tell that to the people debating the TLM (Traditional Latin Mass) online. It’s not hard to think that social media warriors were on his mind as he spoke.

The simple answer would be for those who are offended or disappointed by the tenor of social media spats to close our accounts or stay away from the topic. But real harm is being done via misinformation, whether willful or ill informed, and by the constant confident assertions by posters arguing about what the Church really believes. Every time I look at certain Catholic accounts, I see seekers given bad advice and information, and those who are brave enough to differ receiving responses ranging from being told to go to confession to assurances of possessing a one-way ticket to Hell. This, I will gladly report, is not my usual experience of church—and such knee-jerk judgment mocks the spiritual life—but I think we need to be aware of what is happening. While social media posts don’t reflect the entire church, it is important to be aware of where the cracks may be appearing.

As attention turns to the fall synod meetings, battle lines are being drawn, with many proclaiming this to be a key moment of renewal in the life of the Church, while detractors argue that the synod will lead to schism—or worse. Many feeds are filled with images of Cardinal Sarah, a great proponent of silence, with those posting arguing that we know all we need to know and that lay people need to shut up and listen to a few select members of the Church hierarchy. 

On the other side are those who appreciate the synodal efforts, as Fr. Giacomo Costa, S.I., consultor of the general secretariat of the synod, has said, to use the “method of conversation in the Holy Spirit,” remaining particularly conscious of those whose voices have not traditionally been heard by the church. In other words, we are to listen—and not only in one way—to our church family and beyond.

And so, the petty, presumptive Twitter wars become distracting noise at this critical juncture which is, perhaps, exactly what those afraid of a new way forward, those angered by the approach of Pope Francis, hope to achieve.

But if we return to "Toward Full Presence," with its stated desire to break down the political walls that keep us from fruitful conversation, we’ll be reminded that our online encounters, even if hidden behind anonymous handles, should be geared toward collaboration and cooperation rather than division and assertions of who is the better, more faithful Catholic. It’s a timely topic that should be preached about and discussed in Catholic schools and universities. It’s a document that should be taken to heart in this time of renewal. But if we can’t even get all bishops on board, how do we move forward as “loving neighbors,” whether online or in person?

Catherine Mulroney is a communications officer at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.

The U.S. Catholic Church Should Embrace the Vision of Laudato Si’

This week, in one of my columns at the National Catholic Reporter, I looked at the role apocalyptic despair plays in preventing Catholics from embracing the kinds of societal and personal changes we need to counteract climate change. The situation is so dire, and so monumental, that there is a tendency to throw up our hands and think there isn’t much any one of us can do to avert disaster.

I have come to the conclusion that this is one of the reasons the U.S. bishops’ conference has not taken major steps to implement Laudato Si’. But it is not the only reason. There has been a sustained campaign to deny the reality of climate change and Pope Francis’ authority to treat the issue.

Aggressive denialism was far more prominent than apocalyptic despair when the encyclical was published. Even such a prominent academic as Princeton’s Robert P. George wrote a “prebuttal” to Laudato Si’ for First Things before Laudato Si’ was even published. “The Pope has no special knowledge, insight or teaching authority pertaining to matters of empirical fact of the sort investigated by, for example, physicists and biologists, nor do popes claim such knowledge, insight or wisdom,” George opined. “Pope Francis does not know whether, or to what extent, the climate changes (in various directions) of the past several decades are anthropogenic—and God is not going to tell him. Nor does he know what their long-term effects will be. If anything he teaches depends on views about these things, all he will have to go on is what everybody else has to go on, namely, the analyses offered by scientific specialists who have studied the matter.”

Such statements were technically accurate but insidious too, and have only grown more so. George doubled down on them at the time with a column that, among other things, cited prominent scientists who raised objections to the dominant view that climate change is real and much of it is caused by human beings. Nobody loves a contrarian more than me, but the scientists he cites, such as Freeman Dyson and Richard Lindzen are not just outliers, they are cranks.

So far as I can tell, Robert George has not modified his stance. He certainly has not stepped up and said, “Pope Francis was right and I was wrong.”

Another person all too willing to cast doubts about Laudato Si’ at the time it was published was EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo. He aired a segment featuring a representative from the Heartland Institute. “Heartland” sounds so wholesome, you can be forgiven for thinking they make apple pies and support mothers. In fact, the organization is a libertarian group, funded by individuals and groups with long track records of supporting libertarian positions on a variety of issues. Libertarianism is many things but no iteration of it is consistent with Catholic social teaching.

Arroyo has continued his drumbeat of climate denialism. His 2020 interview with then-President Donald Trump was a study in advanced sycophancy, and he set climate change against abortion as a life issue, allowing Trump to differentiate himself from Joe Biden saying, “I’m pro-life, he’s not.” There was no follow-up.

When Biden appointed John Kerry to be his point man on climate change, Arroyo went on Fox News to suggest Kerry is compromised because of his wife’s business dealings with China. Arroyo said Mrs. Kerry had as much as $5 million invested in a Chinese hedge fund. Her net worth is estimated to be about $750 million so $5 million is a rounding error. And, if Arroyo was concerned about grifters, that concern was never manifested during the Trump years.

For people who rely on Fox and ideologically related media for news, they really have been fed nonsense about climate change year after year, always dressed up in authoritative-sounding, pseudo-scientific, intellectual drag.

The Catholic Church in this country could take the lead in beating back this tide of misinformation. Many of the people in the pews are conservatives and they likely have been exposed to lies about climate change. But they also look outside and see that the temperature is above 110 degrees or their street is flooded or that the air is thick with unhealthy clouds of smoke from Canadian wildfires. A priest doesn’t have to be an expert on climate change to call his parishioner’s attention to the problem: All he needs to know about the science was set forth by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’.

Regrettably, as the U.S. bishops debate their new priorities and plans – they punted on the issue at their June meeting in Orlando—it seems unlikely that they will place a reboot of Laudato Si’ at the top of their list of priorities. But they should. As the daily weather report attests, the ill effects of climate change have already begun and they are only going to get worse.

At a deeper level, the vision of Laudato Si’ challenges the libertarianism that is at the heart of so much in American politics and culture, even though our Catholic teachings are allergic to it. Perhaps, just perhaps, the climate crisis will cause Americans to rethink their famous rugged individualism. Perhaps, just perhaps, the Catholic Church in the U.S. can be at the vanguard of shedding that selfishness which has always endangered the soul, and now endangers the planet. 

Michael Sean Winters is a journalist and writer for the National Catholic Reporter.

Queering Synodality

Queer theology is not really concerned with LGBTQ+ “representation” in the Church. As a project, queer theology seeks to disrupt, to challenge, to transgress dominant oppressive norms. More than offering apologetics for LGBTQ+ inclusion in the Church (which remain important), queer theology utilizes a different kind of method that posits a challenge to normativity—particularly oppressive ways of thinking.

Is there a place for such a destabilizing transgressive project in a synodal Church that, as Pope Francis envisions, emphasizes unity and togetherness in the journey as a People of God? Would queer theology present an antithesis to that synodal vision?

In response, I argue that queerness should be an essential component of the synodal journey.

Queerness presents a solution to an ecclesiological problem we encounter too often in our Church. While many in our Church have brought forth significant structural reforms and key developments, these advances are often thwarted or delayed by Church leaders who cling to outdated ways of thinking. The phrase “old wine in new wineskins” captures this trend.

I believe that a genuine synodal journey needs to consider and challenge the operating norms underneath any potential structural reform. Queer theology functions in this realm of normative discourse (defined by Foucault as a powerful use of language to produce “knowledge” that generates particular norms). Queer theologizing is not limited to structural reforms, but rather seeks to examine and challenge the operating principles that lie underneath our efforts and the “so called” knowledge that sustains them. It asks: what religious norms do we subscribe to and how was the knowledge that sustains them produced? How does our theological discourse promote such norms? Who is oppressed by those norms? And, crucially, how can we use theological discourse destabilize oppressive norms?

These questions are key for a Church that wishes to usher in reform while also challenging the underlying currents of thought that sustain outdated structures. More importantly, queerness challenges norms in unexpected ways by making us aware of our blind spots. It highlights oppressive normativity in areas of our lives where we don’t suspect it exists. Since many of us walk in lockstep by blindly following norms socialized into our psyche from an early age, encountering queer transgressions may cause a necessary disruption that initiates a process of introspection and transformation.

A synodal Church, while conserving its hierarchical structure that may perpetuate “walking in lockstep” (e.g., the image of a pastor and a flock), should welcome in more queer disruption. I wish Church leaders would implore queer theologians to (1) challenge them in new and unexpected ways, (2) explain how Catholic theological norms discursively enable oppression inside and outside of the Church, and (3) teach them new liberatory forms of discourse.

To make my proposal more concrete—though well intentioned, synodality could fall prey to a bishop who, while singing praises for the synodal journey, continues to fiercely cling to “old wine” ideas of gender and sexuality that ultimately oppress the LGBTQ+ Catholics that synodality hopes to welcome (as evidenced in the majority of synod continental reports throughout the world). Thus, synodality becomes ineffective and self-defeating. Assuming that this bishop is rational and well intentioned (generous as that may be in some cases), it’s obvious that he may not have opened himself up to challenge on matters of sexual normativity. Perhaps he cannot even imagine that such norms can be credibly challenged. Therefore, a genuine spirit of synodality, for this bishop, would make use of a queer methodology that challenges any previously unnoticed oppressive norms still operating underneath the surface of his synodal path.

Crucially, I also argue that, in the same way that synodality needs queer theology, the queer theological project could also benefit from the spirit of synodality. Space does not allow me to develop this idea, so I will simply observe that synodality helps queerness stay close to the ground and connected to the historical experiences of people. Challenging norms for the sake of challenging norms is dangerous. There are many norms in our society (moral and cultural) that I would seek to preserve. A queer project that loses sight of human experiences, historical oppression, the importance of community and a justice-oriented vision of the future could cause serious harm. Synodality provides a potential for a Catholic queer theological project grounded in communal lived experience.

I conclude by reflecting on Pope Francis’ letter to the newly appointed prefect for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, in which he states his hopes for a Church that increases its understanding of faith instead of focusing on condemning errors. I am cautiously optimistic that such vision would help the DDF open itself up to the movement of the Spirit manifested in queer transgressions rather than seek to rigidly preserve established norms that clearly threaten the dignity of many queer Catholics. Catholic leaders, and the Church as a whole, could significantly benefit from the insights and the challenges presented by queer Catholic theology.

Ish Ruiz is the Provost-Candler Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in Catholic Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. 

Catholics, the Supreme Court and Theological Formation

I spent the last week of June waiting for the release of Supreme Court decisions and reading each day about rulings that continue the rightward trajectory of American legal and political life. These rulings are driven by white conservative backlash to the attempts to implement a more just society for historically oppressed and disempowered groups. Given the Court’s 6-3 conservative majority, these decisions did not come as a surprise to me or to the friends and colleagues with whom I spoke about the news over that week. But the felt inevitability did little to assuage the sense of anger and grief at the loss of affirmative action as an important tool for racial justice, the dashing of hopes for student debt relief and the opening of the door to further LGBTQ discrimination. One summer after the Dobbs decision, and with what we can assume will be a long tenure of this conservative-majority court, these cases continue to set a path for the American legal system that suggests more undoing of protections for marginalized groups to come.

In the midst of reading and reacting to these signs of the political times, I went to Mass on Sunday at a local parish. There, I heard nothing of these signs of the times, but rather about America’s story as one of “hospitality” accompanied by the singing of “America the Beautiful.” Being relatively new to the area, I have attended a variety of parishes seeking to understand the lay of the parochial land, and I do not expect that I would have experienced a vastly different liturgy at another local parish. Indeed, across various states around the country, I have encountered this kind of nationalism in the parish. But the contrast between the conversations of the preceding week and the Fourth of July-themed liturgy was particularly stark. That encounter left me reflecting, as I have many times over the past years, on the theological formation offered by U.S. Catholic parishes and its ability (or lack thereof) to meet the challenge of our political moment.

In her discussion of Catholics and the Supreme Court, Barbara Perry traces the history of Catholics on the bench, beginning with Chief Justice Taney who delivered the majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford, now considered the worst decision of the Court’s history. From there, the 19th and 20th centuries saw the development of the so-called “Catholic seat” on the Court, by which presidents aimed to attract voters through this symbolic representation. By the late 20th century, however, Perry argues, the “Catholic seat” began to carry less weight for attracting voters. When President Reagan appointed Justice Antonin Scalia, though the administration was aware that Scalia would be the first Italian American on the Court, Reagan was less interested in Scalia’s religious affiliation than his conservatism. Indeed, Perry argues, by the time the Court arrived at a Catholic majority in the 2000s, the presidents who appointed these Catholic justices were far less interested in their religion than in their willingness to serve conservative ideological priorities.

Though Perry’s history ends in 2009, prior to the current makeup of the bench, her point about the ideological selection of justices seems to me to have merit, as well as resonances beyond the Court. Though interviews or profiles of the six Catholic justices (Gorsuch was also raised Catholic, though he is now an Episcopalian) make mention of their Mass attendance or self-descriptions of their faith, it is not possible for me to state the importance of Catholicism in informing the justice’s thinking. But with regard to Catholic teaching, the separation of church and state is most apparent in the justices’ rulings on issues like the death penalty and the recent ruling on affirmative action (which is contrasted by the positive recommendation of affirmative action policies in the USCCB’s 1979 Pastoral Letter “Brothers and Sisters to Us”). Last week’s 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis decision, on the other hand, stands in a line of decisions weakening that church and state division where it serves conservative political priorities.

The apparent conservative ideological motivation for these rulings finds comfortable resonances among U.S. Catholic voters, particularly white Catholics. As is by now well-known, a majority of white Catholics voted for Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020, giving support to his choice of justices and the rulings they have made. More frequent Mass attendance made it more, not less, likely that a white Catholic would vote for Donald Trump. While there are plenty of parishes where this kind of political conservatism is openly preached, in others there is simply an anemia of preaching and teaching any alternatives. The result is that many white U.S. Catholics are largely ignorant of the Social Teaching of the Church and its implications for political life. I sympathize with pastors who do try to make some of this message known, aware that they see their parishioners on Sunday morning, while Fox News lulls them to bed every night. In our particular political moment, when even some bishops seem more informed by right-wing news than theological reflection, it is difficult to preach any social teaching or political theology that might challenge the political status quo. But silence resigns us to a political theology of Christian nationalism and temptations to fascism as described by my colleague Dan Rober.

The readings for last Sunday did indeed speak of hospitality—hospitality given to the prophets, the righteous and the “little ones” (Mt. 10:37-42). The current Supreme Court appears disinclined towards hospitality to any of these, welcoming with open arms instead the priorities of one political party and the kindness of billionaires. They are part of a larger moment of political crisis that calls out for prophetic critique and politics that center on the “little ones.” Both resources can be found within the Catholic tradition and need to be resurfaced and taught as central to U.S. Catholics’ theological formation.

Callie Tabor is a lecturer in the Department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.